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2010 back-to-school retail desktop wrap-up

Breaking down the winners and losers in our round-up of back-to-school retail desktops for 2010.

We've spent the better part of the last two months reviewing the desktops and laptops you're most likely to find when you go to your local electronics retailer. The Apple systems are available at a number of stores, of course, and if you go into any Best Buy nationwide you should find every system we reviewed. Staples and others might have a few of the models listed as well.

You may have seen the wrap-ups of the various retail laptop categories. Now we're turning our attention to desktops. We'll discuss what you'll find at retail stores, and whether or not you should buy it.

Budget desktops

For the purposes of this roundup we consider anything less than $600 to be a budget PC, but we've left off Nettops because they're not fast enough. Mostly we were underwhelmed by the desktops in this group, thanks to poor value or out-of-date features, or, in the case of HP's lamentable Slimline s5510y, both.

Gateway's small, versatile SX2801-01e earned an Editors' Choice award. Sarah Tew/CNET

Two systems stood out. We liked the Gateway SX2801-01e, although the slim tower SX-line has been kind of a "gimme" for Gateway lately. It has nailed the value equation for that model, offering strong components and performance for its price, as well as connectivity options, like HDMI, that make sense for its form factor. You could use this system as a space-saving box in a dorm room, or as a media-streaming system connected directly to an HDTV.

We were also happy with HP's AMD-powered Pavilion p6150y. This system's quad-core AMD Athlon II X4 630 CPU made it the best at multithreaded apps in its group. That would make this desktop a good pick for anyone looking for an affordable PC for light-duty photo or video editing.

Online alternative: eMachines ET1831-07. This utilitarian budget box will serve well as a basic day-to-day desktop. Its $389 asking price is lower than any of the retail systems listed, too.


This was our most competitive category, with four of the five systems earning 3.5-star ratings, although the price range is larger than that of the budget desktops.

We liked the HP Pavilion p6540y for a few reasons--among them the fact that it's a color other than black.
We liked the HP Pavilion p6540y for a few reasons. Among them: the fact that it's a color other than black. Sarah Tew/CNET

The Mac Mini is the odd-man out in this category as far as its shape and size. Adding an HDMI to the overall redesign was a smart step toward making the Mac Mini more living-room-friendly, but a puny hard drive and no Blu-ray option hold this system back from greatness.

At the lower end of the price range, the $649 Gateway DX4840-03e adds a noticeable boost in specs over the HP Pavilion p6150y from the budget group. You get a faster CPU, twice the RAM, a larger hard drive, and wireless networking, whereas the HP offers only a wired connection. Spend a little more and you get the $700 or so HP Pavilion P6540y, which has similar core specs, but an AMD quad-core chip, whereas the Gateway has a quad core-simulating Intel Core i5.

Emulating a pattern we found throughout these reviews, the Core i5 makes the Gateway faster at single-core focused tasks, but the HP and its true quad-core Athlon CPU is better at programs, like multimedia-editing apps, that can leverage all four CPU cores. We also appreciate that HP went with a glossy light gray for this Pavilion over the standard black exterior.

Spend some more money and you come to Dell's Studio XPS SX8100-1408NBC for $899. This system is an acceptable all-arounder, and even has a discrete Nvidia graphics card for low-level 3D gaming. Spend for this one if you need more visual-processing power for editing video or playing games.

Online alternative: Few worthwhile. Even going to HP and Dell and building a custom system to match these retail specials will generally result in higher prices. You might find a competitive refurbished system in this price range.


You can always run the price up and build a better desktop, so to keep the scope reasonable let's set the back-to-school performance ceiling around $1,500. Neither of the retail systems in this category were that impressive. The $949 or so Asus Essentio CG1330-05 didn't distance itself far enough from the $899 midrange Dell system above.

You'd be wise to bypass both retail performance PCs and opt for the Dell Studio XPS 7100, available online. Sarah Tew/CNET

The $1,099 Gateway FX6840-03e had similar problems. That system boasts a clever case and some fast gaming performance, and it's also generally fast, but a customizable Dell system for just $50 more offers faster gaming power, a Blu-ray drive, and a larger hard drive. We'd happily sacrifice a bit of application speed for a well-rounded desktop like that.

Online alternative: The above-referenced Dell Studio XPS 7100.


First, forget about touch input at retail. The HP TouchSmart 300-1120 will be fine in a kitchen, but its small screen and slow performance won't satisfy students, and for them the touch software will likely seem superfluous. The Gateway One ZX6900-01e offers better value, with a large 23-inch display, a Blu-ray drive, and decent performance for $999. Here the touch input is unresponsive, and the software uninspired, but at least the system itself is a good deal.

The Gateway One ZX69001-0e falls short of true greatness, but its 23-inch display and Blu-ray drive still make it a compelling deal. Sarah Tew/CNET

Apple's newly refreshed $1,199 iMac, of course, wins the prize for its looks. It's also fast. Shortcomings include a small screen and a puny hard drive for its price, as well as the lack of Blu-ray. Macs have demonstrated efficient performance lately next to their Windows 7 counterparts, so if speed is a concern, the iMac is a solid choice, although it's also more expensive.

Online alternative: We like the Acer Aspire Z5700. We haven't reviewed it yet (check back next week), but our first impressions are favorable. Its sub-$1,000 price tag and 23-inch display are both competitive with the Gateway, and though it lacks a Blu-ray drive, it comes with an HDMI input. That means you connect game consoles or other devices and use it as a true dorm room entertainment hub. If the Gateway One ZX6900-01e had an HDMI in, it would likely have won an Editors' Choice award.